What Is the Connection between Sleep Apnea and Diabetes?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

The strongest connection between sleep apnea and diabetes is that they frequently occur together. People with diabetes are additionally at a significant risk for developing sleep apnea, and this risk increases with age and/or elevated body mass index (BMI). Moreover, the two diseases share other factors in common, like poor patient self-diagnosis or recognition. Also, the failure to treat sleep apnea in the diabetic tends to worsen diabetes.

CPAP machines are assistive breathing devices for patients with sleep apnea.
CPAP machines are assistive breathing devices for patients with sleep apnea.

Diabetes Type II results in high blood sugar levels that cannot be appropriately metabolized by the body. Sleep apnea features stop breathing episodes while sleeping, with additional problems like snoring, oxygen depletion, and daytime tiredness. As stated, these two conditions often occur together.

It's important that physicians order diabetes screenings for people with sleep apnea.
It's important that physicians order diabetes screenings for people with sleep apnea.

The frequency with which sleep apnea and diabetes co-occur is striking. Of people with sleep apnea, 40% have diabetes, and roughly half of all people with diabetes have or will develop sleep apnea. Medical professionals now argue that the high rate of sleep apnea and diabetes indicate always screening for one if the other is present.

People who seem most likely to have sleep apnea and diabetes together tend to share other features. Diabetics who are over the age of 65 and/or who are considered medically obese bear the most risk. Even in these groups, appropriate diagnosis isn’t assured. In many instances, patients don’t recognize the symptoms of these disorders, and they may not be brought to the attention of doctors right away. This is unfortunate because both diseases benefit from early intervention.

It is especially important that people with diabetes be screened for sleep apnea. Research has now shown that failure to treat this condition can worsen diabetes. It may cause greater insulin resistance or rising glucose levels, and these only interfere with the treatment efforts directed at diabetes.

The benefits of this screening for either or both sleep apnea and diabetes are apparent. Treatment for sleep apnea uses methods like a continuous pulmonary airway pressure (CPAP) machine, an assistive breathing device that is operated during sleeping hours. It has a tremendously positive effect on diabetes by lowering glucose levels. This could mean diabetics might retain more control of their illness or use less medication for it.

Some diabetics with sleep apnea won’t receive or stick with CPAP because the machines and all their related parts aren’t that user friendly. Doctors still strongly advise sleep apnea treatment for patients with concurrent diabetes. They argue that even if CPAP is inconvenient or difficult to become accustomed to, it offers measurable beneficial effects on the degree of diabetic illness, while helping to alleviate the effects of sleep apnea.

Diabetics who are considered medically obese bear the most risk of having sleep apnea.
Diabetics who are considered medically obese bear the most risk of having sleep apnea.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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